Saturday, February 27, 2010

D. E. Dilger and friend spoof Mac/PC ads

If you've seen any video of Dilger doing standup comedy, you'll know that he's not always as dry as most of his "Ten Myths of Apple's iPad" videos have been. However, in the 10th installment, he enlists the help of a friend to spice things up a bit, with a result that's quite different. It was intended to be a spoof on the Mac/PC ads, with John Hodgman's character replaced by a slinky iPad running iPhone OS, so that it's Mac OS vs. iPhone OS...

That shared, I must say that it's slightly ironic that Dilger's videos were among the things I couldn't see on the web while I didn't have Flash Player installed, considering some of the things he's said about Flash on the iPhone and iPad. Come on, D.E., let's see an alternative to Flash on your website!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Apple as an electromechanical device company, WTF?

Granted, not obviously more so than other computer companies, but consider not only that hard disk drives and DVD drives are very much electromechanical devices, but also that a broad definition of electromechanical would also include ports, which have both electrical and mechanical force requirements, the cables that connect laptop screens, which must pass through hinges, and the shell and chassis, which must possess sufficient rigidity to prevent damage to the screen and circuit board. Then there's the battery connector, which must maintain absolutely constant electrical connection despite shock, vibration, and corrosion.

So, okay, we're mostly not talking about solenoids and stepper motors, and where we are they're included in major components that come whole from some supplier, but take a closer look.

Apple's designers are no strangers to mechanics. Remember the iMac that hinged like a desk lamp? Did you ever look closely at the hinged arm that connected the base unit of one of those machines to its display? And what about the unibody construction of the aluminum MacBook Air and Pro? Apple didn't just ship the specs off to someone else; they designed the machining process. They also designed their own battery construction process.

Apple is famously more attentive to the physical design of its products than are its competitors, much as it is also more attentive to the electronic components and software, but maybe even more so. Physical design is almost an obsession at Apple, right down to the fit and finish. Perhaps it's a stretch to refer to a Dell laptop as a mechanical device, but to deny that an Apple laptop is one is to fail to appreciate the many hours of sleep lost over issues such as insuring that the magnetic clasp presented just the right amount of resistance to opening, or that the screen would remain in whatever position it was set.

All Apple products, but particularly the laptops, are designed this way, with meticulous attention to the physical characteristics of every component. They are machines in every sense of the word.

Apple, $40 Billion in cash, and extreme patience

As I've already stated, I think Apple will have to get into robotics sooner or later, because that's what I expect consumers to vote for with their dollars, euros, yen, and yuan, once the machines become really useful (a matter of another year or two) and once people come to understand how useful they can be. But that's a conclusion without more than a hint about how I arrived at it.

Apple has a lot of money, and some are saying they should be buying back stock or giving shareholders a dividend. Steve Jobs doesn't think either of those options will significantly effect the price of the stock, and prefers to hold onto the cash until an opportunity to make better use of it presents itself. He's also suggesting that something bigger than previous acquisitions might be on the table.

What could Apple buy that would improve their longterm profitability?

Factories? Maybe, but any such facility would need to be staffed, frequently retooled, and operate more economically that those run by the Chinese manufacturing companies Apple currently contracts with.

A foundry? They require fewer people, but the frequent retooling (to keep up with process technologies) would be a huge expense, and why go to the trouble if contract foundries are producing the quality you need at a reasonable price and respecting your need for secrecy.

Any kind of presence in emerging markets? Well, yeah, but the iPhone is already doing a pretty good job of opening those doors, and getting into the thick of local competition could prove counterproductive. Sprinkling China liberally with Apple Stores is a good approach, and one that will probably also work well in India.

Less than successful technology companies, for their engineering talent? Apple hires the best people they can find, with skills that are well aligned with the needs of the company. Such people are likely to be as rare as hen's teeth in tech companies of no particular relevance, available at bargain basement prices. Still there might be the rare instance when a fortuitous patent or two could sweeten the deal sufficiently.

So, okay, let's get over the idea that Apple is about to go on a random shopping spree, and try to anticipate what sort of deal would look worthwhile to Steve Jobs and Apple's executives and Board of Directors.

It would have to be something that built on what Apple already is, which is a pretty complicated subject in itself. Apple is many things, mostly relating to digital electronics and electromechanical devices (see following post), their programming, their packaging as products, their marketing, and aftermarket sales including music and movies. There's a lot of ways to hook into this framework, and therefore a lot of different types of companies that might make useful additions. An important question is what direction does Apple want to grow faster than it might via individual hires and in-house R&D.

For a smaller company, the employees of which would be absorbed into Apple's existing structure, the culture doesn't matter so much, but if the company to be acquired is large enough that some substantial part of it would essentially be appended to Apple, with employees continuing to work with and report to the same people as before, it would be more important that the company's culture be compatible with Apple's. This is perhaps less of a problem if the company to be acquired is physically remote from Apple's main campus, allowing some breathing space for both.

Application of these filters may reduce the field tremendously, but they still leave many potential acquisitions to pick from, far too many to allow an outsider to predict what Apple will do.

We will just have to wait and see.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Apple as a mobile/portable device company

In a presentation/interview in the context of the Goldman Sachs Technology & Internet Conference 2010, Apple COO Tim Cook was unusually forthcoming about the company's nature and direction for the future and where their various product lines fit into it.

As part of this, he again characterized the Apple as a mobile/portable devices company. Longtime Mac users may cringe at this, worrying that the Mac is in danger of becoming an orphan. Here are a few points to set your mind at ease.

First, the Mac is doing extremely well in the market, with growing unit shipments and revenue, and dramatically growing market share, particularly on the desktop and above the $1000 price point. This is a business no one in their right mind would walk away from.

Second, the Mac is rapidly gaining acceptance in corporate environments, suggesting the potential for a reliable, longterm market, despite that Apple's attention to this market sector has mainly been limited to resolving technological issues, like Microsoft Exchange support.

But most importantly, Mac OS X and iPhone OS, while not identical twins, are at least full siblings, sharing so much code that, user interface aside, it can be easy to forget there's any real distinction between them at all. They are, in fact, two manifestations of what is fundamentally the same system. As Mr. Cook said at the Goldman Sachs conference, this is a huge advantage for Apple. It means they get more mileage for the development dollar, since new technologies can be applied to more than a single platform with little modification, and also helps to impose the discipline that insures that OS X remains well ordered in its design, minimizing unexpected results from code changes (bugs). Apple is likely to expand the reach of iPhone/OS/X by using it in all of their product lines, helping insure interoperability and further leveraging their development efforts.

So, yeah, Apple is a mobile/portable device company, and a desktop company, and a content delivery company. Don't let their decision to emphasize the mobile/portable aspect make you fret that the Mac in endangered. It isn't.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

being the rope in a tug of war

There's a lot to be learned from Jeremy Allaire's recent piece in TechCrunch. Beyond the struggle over platforms that is its ostensible subject, he provides insight into the nature of competition in the fast-moving corner of the economy which includes Apple, Google, Adobe, and Microsoft.

What's a person to do, faced with a market that's largely driven by sweeping plays for leverage and dominance.

One reasonable response is to go with the least proprietary solutions available - Linux, FireFox, and Ogg Vorbis - but very few actually carry this approach to its conclusion, instead opting to run FireFox on Windows or Mac OS X, and not bother with the rest, "bother" being the word to focus on here. The end user ends up supplying the glue that holds such a system together, more often than not.

Another reasonable response is to stay as mainstream as possible, which, aside from special circumstances like the music and publishing industries, has meant generic hardware running Microsoft everything for most of the last two decades. This approach also has its downside.

Yet another approach is to go with the best overall solution, taking into account not only the utility of specific components but how seamlessly they work together, or don't. Many people following this approach end up being Apple loyalists, because, while they may not always succeed, Apple at least aspires to provide the best available integration of hardware and various software elements, and they keep getting better at it. Their stuff isn't generally the cheapest, but far more often it's the best available value.

No matter which of these you choose, you'll still be vulnerable to being tossed about by decisions made by the big corporate players, as they jockey for position, market share, and profits. The big new thing from a few years ago becomes tomorrow's no longer supported, worn out old thing. Old hardware will no longer work for the lack of drivers compatible with the new system. You'll find yourself having to duplicate investments in a manner that might remind you of taxation, being taxed to support an industry in constant turmoil.

That's the nature of the beast. The upside is that the general trend is toward getting more for your money. The machine that tasked your patience is replaced by one that feels almost instant, by comparison, at least until security patches slow it down too. Or, if it's not noticeably faster, then it's easier to use, with more attention having been lavished on every detail. Progress happens despite the ulterior motives that sometimes drive it.

So keep your eyes open, and don't be afraid to switch approaches if it's to your benefit to do so. Watching out for your own self interest is your responsibility, after all, not theirs.

Friday, February 19, 2010

intellectual property reform

Daring Fireball links to this TechDirt post which in turn links to this New York Times article about a company called Intellectual Ventures, or, by some, Intellectual Vultures.

It's a fair bet that the original authors of patent law would be aghast at how extreme and distorted that concept has become in today's environment, and how it more frequently acts to stifle progress than to support it.

This situation is exacerbated by a patent office which is overwhelmed by the volume of new applications and frequently asked to rule upon issues that are beyond the expertise of anyone on staff, resulting in many patents being awarded which should not have been, either for being overly broad or for being obvious extrapolations of technology already in use.

I'm using the word "progress" to include both innovation and the eventual passing of intellectual property from private hands to the public domain, a concept which seems to have gotten completely lost, but which was very much a part of patent and copyright law as originally enacted.

If we can't managed health care reform, what hope have we of straightening out the mess that intellectual property has become?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

is it time to uninstall Flash?

(Update: Adobe's representative on the W3C HTML5 Working group, Larry Masinter, appears to be a crusty straight arrow, whose objection was aimed at ironing out procedural kinks rather than any substantial delay.)

Prince McLean writing for AppleInsider, thinks Adobe is attempting to sabotage HTML5, because it threatens Flash. Maybe, maybe not. It might still turn out that they have a perfectly good reason for delaying the latest release that has nothing to do with its potential for undermining Flash. (Daring Fireball has a brief note on the subject, which points here.)

A little digging shows that Adobe makes Flash uninstallers freely available. Actually, I'd already done that search as I'd just decided to uninstall Flash myself, rather than install an upgrade that was necessitated by yet another security issue.

Having done that uninstall, I see that the absence of Flash really does leave big gaps in many web sites, including at least a few Mac-centric sites that have no excuse for not knowing better. I've decided to continue to live with this inconvenience, at least for awhile, if for no other reason than that, without Flash, Safari flies like a jet on afterburners.

I'd suggest downloading the uninstaller for your system, whether you intend to use it (now) or not. That way, if Adobe ever decides to pull them from its website, you'll still be covered.

If you go ahead with the uninstallation, you'll be adding your voice to the chorus that's asking web developers to get off the Flash bandwagon.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

3D video, a long time coming

It seems the world of consumer electronics is finally settling on a standard for 3D video, using active shutter glasses.

This isn't exactly a new approach to 3D. The Atari ST computer had the capability to make use of dual video output buffers, which it could switch between during the vertical blanking interval, enabling it to alternately display two different images. It also had a cartridge port that must have included the VBLANK signal, since at least one brand of LC shutter glasses was made available for use with the machine.

A 1986 article describes a similar system for use in flight simulators.

While I did own an Atari ST, I never tried the 3D glasses, so I can't speak from personal experience. My impression based on second-hand information was that it worked but the quality was not so good. Brighter screens with faster pixels and higher refresh rates, combined with better capture and generation of 3D video should make for a far better experience for today's viewers.

I'll probably get around to trying it our for myself this time.

important (if slightly obscure) milestone

I'm not really into compiler technology, it being almost entirely over my head, but I've been casually following Apple's adoption of LLVM since John Siracusa first mentioned it, and more recently the development of Clang, and have witnessed some of the benefits in the most recent versions of Xcode, with its hyperactive symbolic analysis.

So it's with just a bit of background that I welcome the news that Clang-LLVM can now compile itself, an important indication that these tools are nearing maturity.

(Found on Daring Fireball)

Friday, February 05, 2010

does Apple have a Photoshop® replacement in development?

In an article about the relationship between Apple and Adobe, Hardmac speculates that Apple may have alternatives to Adobe's cash cows in development. Given how openly Steve Jobs has been trashing Adobe, that speculation seems well-founded.

Consider that the situation in which the Mac was no longer the preeminent creative platform would be anathema to Apple, something they simply could not allow to happen, no matter what.

Consider also that Apple introduced Core Image to Mac OS X as a part of 10.4 Tiger, nearly five years ago, since then integrating it into their own applications, including Aperture, Preview, and iPhoto, and encouraging others to make use of it, Adobe included. Two third-party applications in particular, Pixelmator and Acorn, have taken this offer and run with it. By taking advantage of the head start Apple provided in Core Image, they've quickly established themselves as the main contenders among Mac-only image editors.

This is typical of how Apple works in many cases, laying the groundwork in the form of system libraries, available for use by any developer, and folding them into their existing software before deciding to take the next step and use those libraries to build their own pro-level applications. Exceptions typically relate to new, secret hardware projects.

Considering Adobe's reluctance to invest in Mac OS X has been apparent for years, it's very likely that Apple has been working on their own pro-level image editor since before Tiger came out, and that by this time it's well polished and ready for market, likely to be reviewed as better than Photoshop® by the preponderance of reviewers, in the event it is released.

But I doubt that Apple would fire shots across Adobe's bow unless they had more than a Photoshop® replacement ready, or nearly so. Chances are good that they are at least a long way along in developing replacements for most or all of the major components of Creative Suite®. I wouldn't expect a one-to-one correspondence between Adobe applications and their Apple equivalents, but Apple very likely has nearly all of the functionality of CS covered, in one way or another (in particular substituting HTML5 for Flash). At this point the choice whether to go to market must be reduced to about the same level as throwing a switch, and the only thing providing Adobe with a bit of reprieve is that Apple doesn't want to distract attention from their new iPad, due out in less than two months.